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The Cherokee Indian Tribe

 Native American Nations | A Century of Dishonor                  


The Cherokees were the Eastern Mountaineers of America. Their country lay along the Tennessee River, and in the highlands of Georgia, Carolina, and Alabama-the loveliest region east of the Mississippi River. Beautiful and grand, with lofty mountains and rich valleys fragrant with flowers, and forests of magnolia and pine filled with the singing of birds and the melody of streams, rich in fruits and nuts and wild grains, it was a country worth loving, worth fighting, worth dying for, as thousands of its lovers have fought and have died, white men as well as red, within the last hundred years.

When Oglethorpe came with his cargo of Madeira wine and respectable paupers from England in 1733, and lived in tents in midwinter on the shores of the Savannah River, one of the first conditions of safety for his colossal almshouse, in shape of a new colony, was that all the Indians in the region should become its friends and allies.

The reputation of his goodness and benevolence soon penetrated to the fastnesses of their homes, and tribe after tribe sent chiefs and headmen to greet him with gifts and welcome. When the Cherokee chief appeared, Oglethorpe said to him, "Fear nothing. Speak freely." "I always speak freely," answered the mountaineer. " Why should I fear? I am now among friends: I never feared, even among my enemies."

The principal intention of the English trustees who incorporated the Georgia colony was to provide a home for worthy persons in England who were "in decayed circumstances."

Among other great ends which they also avowed was "the civilization of the savages." In one of Oglethorpe's first reports to the trustees he says: "A little Indian nation the only one within fifty miles is not only in amity, but desirous to be subjects to his Majesty King George; to have lands given to them among us, and to breed their children at our schools. Their chief and his beloved man, who is the second man in the nation, desire to be instructed in the Christian religion."

The next year he returned to England, carrying with him eight Indian chiefs, to show them "so much of Great Britain and her institutions as might enable them to judge of her power and dignity. Nothing was neglected," we are told, "that was likely to awaken their curiosity or impress them with a sense of the power and grandeur of the nation." They were received by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and by the Fellows of Eton, and for a space of four months were hospitably entertained, and shown all the great sights of London and its vicinity.

The tribes at home were much gratified by these attentions paid to their representatives, and sent out to the trustees a very curious missive, expressing their thanks and their attachment to General Oglethorpe. This letter was the production of a young Cherokee, chief. It was written in black and red hieroglyphs on a dressed buffalo-skin. Before it was sent to England it was exhibited in Savannah, and the meaning of the hieroglyphs translated by an interpreter in a grand gathering of fifty Indian chiefs and all the principal people of Savannah. Afterward the curious document was framed and hung up in the Georgia Office in Westminster.

When the Wesleyan missionaries arrived in Georgia, two years later, some of the chiefs who had made this visit to England went to meet them, carrying large jars of honey and of milk as gifts, to "represent their inclinations;" and one of the chiefs said to Mr. Wesley, "I am glad you are come. When I was in England I desired that some one would speak the Great Word to me. I will go up and speak to the wise men of our nation, and I hope they will hear. But we would not be made Christians as the Spaniards make Christians; we would be taught before we are baptized."

In those early days Wesley was an intolerant and injudicious enthusiast. His missionary work in the Georgia Colony was anything but successful in the outset, either among the whites or the Indians, and there was ample justification for the reply which this same Indian chief made later when urged to embrace the doctrines of Christianity.

"Why, these are Christians at Savannah. Those are Christians at Frederica. Christians get drunk! Christians beat men! Christians tell lies! Me no Christian!" On another occasion Wesley asked him what he thought he was made for. " He that is above," answered the chief, "knows what he made us for. We know nothing; we are in the dark; but white men know much. And yet white men build great houses, as if they were to live forever. But white men cannot live forever. In a little time white men will be dust as well as I."

For twenty years Oglethorpe's colony struggled on under great difficulties and discouragements. Wars with France and with Spain; tiresome squabbles with and among Methodist missionaries, all combined to make Oglethorpe's position hard. Again and again England would have lost her colony except for the unswerving fidelity of the Indian allies; they gathered by hundreds to fight for Oglethorpe. In one expedition against the frontier, four hundred Creeks and six hundred Cherokees set out in one day, under an urgent call for help sent by Indian runners to their towns. His Indian friends were the only friends Oglethorpe had who stood by him past everything: nothing could shake their fidelity.

"He is poor; he can give you nothing," said the St. Augustine Spaniards to a Creek chief at this time; " it is foolish for you to go to him:" and they showed to the Indian a fine suit of scarlet clothes, and a sword, which they were about to give to a chief of the Tennessees who had become their ally.

But the Creek answered, "We love him. It is true, he does not give us silver; but he gives us everything we want that he has. He has given me the coat off his back, and the blanket from under hint."

At last the trustees of the Georgia Colony lost patience: very bitterly they had learned that paupers, however worthy, are not good stuff to build new enterprises of. In eighteen years the colony had not once furnished a sufficient supply of subsistence for its own consumption: farms which had been cultivated were going to ruin; and the country was rapidly degenerating in every respect. Dishonest traders had tampered with and exasperated the Indians, so that their friendliness could no longer be implicitly trusted. For everything that went wrong the English Company was held responsible, and probably there were no happier men in all England on the 20th of June, 1752, than were the Georgia trustees, who on that day formally resigned their charter, and washed their hands of the colony forever.

The province was now formed into a royal government, and very soon became the seat of frightful Indian wars. The new authorities neither understood nor kept faith with the Indians: their old friend Oglethorpe had left them forever, and the same scenes of treachery and massacre which were being enacted at the North began to be repeated with heart-sickening similarity at the South. Indians fighting Indians fighting as allies today with the French, tomorrow with the English; treaties made, and broken as soon as made; there was neither peace nor safety anywhere.

At last, in 1763, a treaty was concluded with the chiefs and headmen of five tribes, which seemed to promise better things. The Cherokees and Creeks granted to the King of England a large tract of land, cleared off their debts with the sum paid for it, and observed its stipulations faithfully for several years, my til peace was again destroyed, this time by no fault of the Indians, in consequence of the revolt of the American Colonies against Great Britain. The English loyalists in Georgia now availed themselves of the Indians' old habit of allegiance to the Crown. One of their leading agents took a Cherokee woman as his mistress, placed her at the head of his table, gave her the richest dress and equipage that the country could afford, and distributed through her lavish gifts to all the Indians he could reach. When war actually broke out he retreated with her into the fastnesses of the Cherokee nation, where he swayed them at his will. Attempts to capture him were repelled by the Cherokees with ferocity. Prisoners taken by them at this time were tortured with great cruelty; one instance is recorded (in a journal kept by another prisoner, who escaped alive) of a boy about twelve years of age who was suspended by the arms between two posts, and raised about three feet from the ground. "The mode of inflicting the torture was by light-wood splints of about eighteen inches long, made sharp at one end and fractured at the other, so that the torch might not be extinguished by throwing it. After these weapons of death were prepared, and a fire made for the purpose of lighting them, the scene of horror commenced. It was deemed a mark of dexterity, and accompanied by shouts of applause, when an Indian threw one of these torches so as to make the sharp end stick into the body of the suffering youth without extinguishing the torch. This description of torture was continued for two hours before the innocent victim was relieved by death."

These are sickening details, and no doubt will be instinctively set down by most readers as proof of innate cruelty peculiar to the Indian race. Let us, therefore, set side by side with them the record that in this same war white men (British officers) confined white men ("rebels") in prison ships, starved, and otherwise maltreated them till they died, five or six a day, then threw their dead bodies into the nearest marsh, and had them "trodden down in the mud-from whence they were soon exposed by the washing of the tides, and at low-water the prisoners beheld the carrion-crows picking the bones of their departed companions!" Also, that white men (British officers) were known at that time to have made thumbscrews out of musket locks, to torture Georgia women, wives of "rebels," to force them to reveal the places where their husbands were in hiding. Innate cruelty is not exclusively an Indian trait.

The Cherokees had the worst of the fighting on the British side during the Revolution. Again and again their towns were burnt, their winter stores destroyed, and whole bands reduced to the verge of starvation. At one time, when hard pressed by the American forces, they sent to the Creeks for help; but the shrewd Creeks replied, "You have taken the thorns out of our feet; you are welcome to them." The Creeks, having given only limited aid to the British, had suffered much less severely. That any of the Indians should have joined the " rebel" cause seems wonderful, as they had evidently nothing to gain by the transfer of their allegiance to what must have appeared to them for a long time to be the losing side in the contest. For three years and a half Savannah was in the possession of the British, and again and again they had control of the entire State. And to show that they had no compunction about inciting the Indians to massacres they left many a written record such, for instance, as this, which is in a letter written by General Gage from Boston, June, 1775: "We need not be tender of calling on the savages to attack the Americans."

The first diplomatic relations of the United States Government with the Cherokees were in the making of the treaty of Hopewell, in 1785. At the Hopewell council the United States commissioners said: " Congress is now the sovereign of all our country which we now point out to you on the map. They want none of your lands, nor anything else which belongs to you; and as an earnest of their regard for you, we propose to enter into articles of a treaty perfectly equal and conformable to what we now tell you. This humane and generous act of the United States will no doubt be received by you with gladness, and held in grateful remembrance; and the more so, as many of your young men, and the greater number of your warriors, during the late war, were our enemies, and assisted the King of Great Britain in his endeavors to conquer our country."

The chiefs complained bitterly of the encroachments of white settlers upon lands which had been by old treaties distinctly reserved to the Cherokees. They demanded that some of these settlers should be removed; and when the commissioners said that the settlers were too numerous for the Government to remove, one of the chiefs asked, satirically, "Are Congress, who conquered the King of Great Britain, unable to remove those people."

Finally, the chiefs agreed to accept payment for the lands which had been taken. New boundaries were established, and a general feeling of good will and confidence was created. One notable feature in this council was the speech of an Indian woman, called the " war-woman of Chota." (Chota was the Cherokees' city of refuge. All murderers were safe so long as they lived in Chota. Even Englishmen had not disdained to take advantage of its shelter; one English trader who had killed an Indian, having fled, lived there for many months, his own house being but a short distance away. After a time he resolved to return home, but the headmen of the tribe assured him that, though he was entirely safe there, he would surely be killed if he left the town.) The chief who brought this "war-woman" to the council introduced her as "one of our beloved women who has borne and raised up warriors." She proceeded to say, "I am fond of hearing that there is a peace, and I hope you have now taken us by the hand in real friendship. I have a pipe and a little tobacco to give the commissioners to smoke in friendship. I look on you and the red people as Thy children. Your having determined on peace is most pleasing to me, for I have seen much trouble during the late war. I am old, but I hope yet to bear children who will grow up and people our nation, as we are now to be under the protection of Congress, and shall have no disturbance."

A brief summary of the events which followed on the negotiation of this treaty may be best given in the words of a report made by the Secretary of War to the President four years later. In July 1789, General Knox writes as follows of the Cherokees: " This nation of Indians, consisting of separate towns or villages, are seated principally on the head-waters of the Tennessee, which runs into the Ohio. Their bunting-grounds extend from the Cumberland River along the frontiers of Virginia, North and South Carolina, and part of Georgia.

"The frequent wars they have had with the frontier people of the said States have greatly diminished their number. The commissioners estimated them in November 1785, at 2000 warriors, but they were estimated in 1787 at 2650; yet it is probable they may be lessened since by the depredations committed on them.

"The United States concluded a treaty with the Cherokees at Hopewell, on the Keowee, the 28th of November, 1785, which is entered on the printed journals of Congress April 17th, 1786. The negotiations of the commissioners on the part of the United States are hereunto annexed, marked A. It will appear by the papers marked B. that the State of North Carolina, by their agent, protested against the said treaty as infringing and violating the legislative rights of that State.

"By a variety of evidence which has been submitted to the last Congress, it has been proved that the said treaty has been entirely disregarded by the white people inhabiting the frontiers, styling themselves the State of Franklin. The proceedings of Congress on the 1st of September, 1788, and the proclamation they then issued on this subject, will show their sense of the many unprovoked outrages committed against the Cherokees.

"The information contained in the papers marked C., from Colonel Joseph Martin, the late agent to the Cherokees, and Richard Winn, Esq., will further evince the deplorable situation of the Cherokees, and the indispensable obligation of the United States to vindicate their faith, justice, and national dignity.

"The letter of Mr. Winn, the late superintendent, of the 1st of March, informs that a treaty will be held with the Cherokees on the third Monday of May, at the Upper Warford on French Broad River. But it is to be observed that the time for which both he and Colonel Joseph Martin, the agent to the Cherokees and Chickasaws, were elected has expired, and therefore they are not authorized to act on the part of the Union. If the commissioners appointed by North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, by virtue of the resolve of Congress of the 26th of October 1787, should attend the said treaty, their proceedings thereon may soon be expected. But, as part of the Cherokees have taken refuge within the limits of the Creeks, it is highly probable they will be under the same direction; and, therefore, as the fact of the violation of the treaty cannot be disputed, and as the commissioners have not power to replace the Cherokees within the limits established in 1785, it is not probable, even if a treaty should be held, as stated by Mr. Winn, that the result would be satisfactory."

This is the summing up of the situation. The details of it are to be read in copious volumes of the early history of Tennessee, North and South Carolina, and Georgia all under the head of "Indian Atrocities." To very few who read those records does it occur that the Indians who committed these " atrocities" were simply ejecting by force, and, in the contests arising from this forcible ejectment, killing men who had usurped and stolen their lands, lands ceded to them by the United States Government in a solemn treaty, of which the fifth Article was as follows:

"If any citizen of the United States or other person, not being an Indian, shall attempt to settle on any of the lands westward or southward of the said boundaries which are hereby allotted to the Indians for their hunting-grounds, or having already settled and will not remove from the same within six months after the ratification of this treaty, such person shall forfeit the protection of the United States, and the Indians may punish him or not as they please."

It is evident that it is necessary to go back to the days of the first treaties with our Indians to possess ourselves of the first requisites for fair judgment of their conduct toward white men. What would a community of white men, situated precisely as these Cherokees were, have done? What did these very Southern colonists themselves do to Spaniards who encroached on their lands? Fought them; killed them; burnt their houses over their heads, and drove them into the sea!

In a later communication in the same year to the President, the Secretary says: "The disgraceful violation of the treaty of Hopewell with the Cherokees requires the serious consideration of Congress. If so direct and manifest contempt of the authority of the United States be suffered with impunity, it will be in vain to attempt to extend the arm of the Government to the frontiers. The Indian tribes can have no faith in such imbecile promises, and the lawless whites will ridicule a government which shall on paper only make Indian treaties and regulate Indian boundaries."

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

A Century of Dishonor, By Helen Hunt Jackson, New York, Harper & Brothers, Franklin Square, 1885

A Century of Dishonor


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